Using Technology to Reduce Response Times

Issue 11 and Volume 7.

When some people hear the words “technology” or “state-of-the-art,” they think of cool and cutting-edge gadgets designed to make our jobs easier. How we think about technology is sometimes determined by our rank—firefighters may think of the latest and greatest SCBAs, thermal imaging cameras, technical rescue equipment or other tools to help them conduct operations on the fireground, but fire chiefs may think of complicated project management, investment costs, ongoing maintenance fees and the problems associated with implementing change.

Regardless of your experience, a wide variety of technology-based solutions are available to meet public safety problems that have plagued fire departments for decades.

Although fireground operations are where the rubber meets the road, we must also think about using technology in other areas to improve outcomes. One area where technology has significant potential for improving our jobs: effectiveness and efficiency of incident response. Departments can use technology for “behind-the-scenes” functions that will inevitably have a significant impact on the fireground.

Reducing Response Times
Now more than ever, fire departments are being held accountable for their response time performance and effectiveness. Can your fire department answer the following questions accurately?

  1. How fast do your dispatchers answer and process emergency calls?
  2. What safeguards or job aides are in place to help dispatchers send the most appropriate units?
  3. How long does it take for firefighters to react and respond to an emergency incident?
  4. Are apparatus properly equipped for an efficient and safe response?

Our industry constantly attempts to improve response time, but rarely do we look at all aspects of the equation. Technology can play an important role in improving response times.

Remember that total response time is made up of three distinct components:

  1. Dispatch time: Time elapsed from when a call is received at the 9-1-1 center until units are notified.
  2. Turnout time: Time elapsed from when units are notified until they are responding.
  3. Travel time: Time elapsed from when units respond until they arrive on the incident scene.

Most fire departments have a habit of focusing solely on improving their travel time, because it’s traditionally accepted that little can be done to improve the other two components. Firefighters falsely believe that improving response time is made easy by driving faster. This solution rarely has a positive impact; in fact, it can lead to disastrous outcomes.

But using technology as an alternative to improve response times can change all that. Let’s take a close look at each of the three components that make up response time.

Dispatch Time
One of the most critical areas in which to decrease response times comes before firefighters ever realize there’s an emergency. When dispatchers receive a call for an emergency, it’s critical that they identify the nature of the incident and be able to dispatch the most appropriate resources. It isn’t uncommon to see technical rescue and hazmat situations downplayed during initial dispatch because dispatchers aren’t comfortable with the incident type.

Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and response interrogation software can help dispatchers recognize those rare, high-risk incidents and send the correct resources the first time. Sending the correct type and amount of resources initially is an excellent example of using technology to be more effective.

Additional technological improvements at the dispatch center can further help improve our performance. Can you imagine a dispatcher who always speaks at the same rate, tone and volume? Today, that is possible with computer-generated voice technology. By establishing a pre-recorded audio database, fire departments can ensure the correct pronunciation of all street names in a response jurisdiction. Even the format of a radio dispatch can be customized based on the incident type, geographic location or other variables. Although the use of “robot voices” for dispatching may sound unappealing or unnatural, it eliminates common errors that can have disastrous consequences.

The use of this technology can shave seconds off the dispatch time. In addition to this tangible benefit, dispatchers are able to handle higher call volume since the radio dispatch becomes “hands free.” The process is simple: A dispatcher processes a call for service, inputs all of the information required into a CAD system and simply presses a button to initiate the dispatch process. Since the “voice” is transmitting the information to emergency response units, the human dispatcher is free to gather additional information from the caller or to perform other duties.

Turnout Time
It’s impossible to improve things that aren’t measured and communicated. If we desire quick responses, we need to explore other ways to help our firefighters respond quicker. Taking an idea from the sports arena, why not place a clock on the wall to indicate how many seconds are left until an established goal is met? Firefighters are more likely to improve performance when they can see, in real time, how they’re doing.

In Photo 1, a simple countdown clock is tied to the fire station alerting system. Once an alert is received, the same circuit that opens doors and turns on lights initiates a countdown from 60 to 0 seconds on this clock. The clock should be mounted in a conspicuous location in the apparatus bay. When only 10 seconds remain, a chime is activated on the clock to remind companies to quickly place themselves “responding” with the dispatch center. We have installed these clocks in two stations as prototypes to see if results improve enough to expand the practice to the other five fire stations. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that the visibility of this device causes positive behavioral change (i.e., quicker turnout time).

Travel Time
Installing computers in fire apparatus is more common today than it has ever been. Departments have a wide variety of options, from adapting laptops to fit in the cab to purchasing customized, in-vehicle computers. Regardless of the hardware chosen, departments should consider using these computers for apparatus status changes. Using mobile dispatch software, firefighters can be responsible for changing their statuses, thus making them accountable for their performance. This frees up the airwaves for additional information that companies may receive while responding.

Computers with touch-screens or easy-access buttons are the best for shaving seconds off of travel times. It will also be important for departments to closely examine the software that will be used to make sure it is “friendly” with a touch-screen environment. Some software programs use icons that are too small and detailed for any measure of accuracy on a touch-screen.

In-cab computers can also contain automatic vehicle location (AVL) devices to track fire department apparatus in real time using GPS. This can provide valuable information and allow dispatchers to notify units that are closest to a received call for an emergency, thus reducing travel times.  

Embrace Change … But Use Caution
These technologies can all have a positive impact on improving total response time. Their cost varies—from several hundred dollars for an electronic clock to hundreds of thousands of dollars for automated voice dispatching and mobile computers—but in the grand scheme of customer service, it may be well worth the investment for the improved outcome.

Note: These solutions for public safety problems should ONLY be implemented when they improve and simplify operations—not complicate them. Some equipment vendors have a poor understanding of the environment and culture of the fire service, leading them to think their solutions are more user-friendly than they really are. Be sure to explore what solutions other fire departments have implemented and the lessons they learned to avoid repeating mistakes. Today’s economic conditions demand that we work smarter and are mindful of our budgetary footprint for complex projects. Ideally, your investment in technological solutions should demonstrate to your taxpayers that your department is working harder for their tax dollars.

The bottom line: Technological improvements for our business have only just begun. Embrace the change and look for ways to keep your fire department on the cutting edge of improvement.